Harold Edwards' reminiscences of his life as an Anarchist and Wobbly in early 20th century London.
I was born in 1900 in Theobalds Road - my birthplace now houses the South Place Institute and Amnesty International. My father left my mother when I was about three and we went to live with my grandfather, a butcher, in Red Lion Street, next door to the shop where first I and then Charlie Lahr were to become booksellers.
The family was an old-fashioned Liberal one, exceptionally anti-Conservative, pro-Lloyd George (who indeed was something of a hero), and anti-Boer War, reading the Daily Chronicle or Daily News. I was fortunate that my grandfather was a self-educated man, typical of the Victorian times, who had attended the Working Men’s College in the 1860s, after it had first opened in Red Lion Square, and so had known the people like Rossetti and William Morris who taught there. There were always good books in his house-Shakespeare (whom he read on a Sunday evening), Milton, Martin Luther’s Table Talk, Bunyan, Carlyle - and I was never told to take my head out of a book.
I was naturally brought up as a Dissenter and the chapel, Kingsgate Baptist Chapel, was around the corner; but I wandered off very early on. At eleven or twelve I regarded this as not for me at all. For instance, I could not understand (and I remember asking my grandfather about it) the idea that those born before Christ were doomed to some limbo. This appeared all wrong. I noticed also that whenever I prayed for anything I never got it!
As an ardent freethinker I joined the Metropolitan Secular Society which held Sunday meetings in Hyde Park and had a subscription of a shilling a year. I bought Kropotkin’s Conquest of Bread for sixpence in Sicilian Avenue and reading it changed my life. The first political organisation I tried to join was the Socialist Party of Great Britain, because their headquarters were just up the road, by the Royal Free Hospital, from where my mother and I were living in Gray’s Inn Road. They asked me whether I belonged to any other body, I very proudly said “The Metropolitan Secular Society” and was told I could not belong to anything else at all as a member of the S.P.G.B. Even at fifteen or sixteen I couldn’t accept that and so never became an S.P.G.B.er! The City of London I.L.P. was therefore the first political party that I joined.
I was at school until sixteen and then went to Lloyd’s as a marine insurance broker. Of course, I could not stand that. It struck me as a ghastly way of earning a living. I used to say I’d sooner be a tramp than work in an office. The thought to me of a job of any kind is very unpleasant. Having to get up in the morning and go to work, to know that was going on for fifty or sixty years and that you got a fortnight’s holiday and, if you were lucky, £10 a year rise- it all seemed to me so horrible.Nor did I intend to join the Army. That was the last thing I was going to do. I was not a pacifist but a conscientious objector on the grounds that I would not fight my fellow working man; and I formed these views long before I ever thought I was going to be called up. In fact I was only liable for conscription for two or three months towards the end of 1918. The Communist Club in Charlotte Street was raided when I was of military age, but I looked so young- only about seventeen- that I was passed. The men who were liable and on the run and the Germans were down in a cubby-hole in the basement.
I left home and work at one and the same time in January 1918, leaving a note for my poor mother saying that I wouldn’t fight for the capitalist class, and took a little backroom at 32 Paris Street, Lambeth, immediately opposite St. Thomas’s. Over my bed were pinned portraits of Marat, Hébert, Robespierre- all the most extreme leaders of the French Revolution. I was single-minded in my advocacy of the Social Revolution; and my whole life consisted of going to Finsbury Park or Hyde Park or the Communist Club. In the next room were two whores who worked the Waterloo Road. I never had a thought about them, oblivious to what they were doing. We shared an oven on the landing and the two girls gave me dripping to cook with. They were thrown out for bringing back noisy Australian soldiers and I took on their room, a much better one with two windows.
I got a job as a window-cleaner. I practised sitting out on the window-sill of my room, which was on the third floor, and, realising that I had only to do this about twice and over I should go, never took that further. I always carried Freedom and similar papers with me and became very friendly with a lot of Spanish anarchists whom I had met in one of the Soho coffee-bars. All of them were intelligent, well-read men and all were cooks. They worked during the winter and did nothing in the summer. An especial friend, Armando Tolosana, a soup- or fish-cook, obtained work for me as a kitchen worker at the Army and Navy Club in St. James’s Square.
I was an anarchist by deed and thoroughly approved of blowing people up and so on. I went round to help Freedom at its Ossulston Street offices. I gave my very long run of The Freethinker ( all my spare money had been used to buy back numbers) to be repulped for printing Freedom since paper could no longer be obtained. Working there were two deaf-mutes, L.A. Motler and G. Scates, who were respectively editor and manager of Satire: A Paper of Social Criticism, the only illustrated anarchist periodical in English to have appeared. Motler, an Esperantist with a little green star in hids lapel, was the artist (and a good one) and his portrayal of the House of Commons as a row of gasworks amused me very much. Satire was published monthly from December 1916 until it was closed down by the police in April 1918.
From Lambeth I moved to a bug-infested room at 53 Greek Street. As an anarchist I would never lock the door, but except for about one shirt there was nothing for anyone to steal. I got a room next to me for Dicky Fox’s (1) brother, aged 26 or 27, who was a C.O., had served his time and was then on the run. The place was alive with bugs and he only lasted two or three nights! At the end of the war he went out to the Canary Islands and eventually became British Consul-General there.
Through the Spaniards I met Malatesta, who was living over a grocer’s shop run by an ex-Communard in Arthur Street, off New Oxford Street. (Another Communard had a successful wine and spirits store in Charlotte Street.) Malatesta’s companion was Lola Riccobonni, a most handsome Venetian girl. When I later had a room at 111 Charlotte Street he would come up and have tea with me. He was a very simple, very fine man, whom it is a great privilege to have known.
Early in 1918 I joined the Industrial workers of the World, the I.W.W.—“ I Won’t work if the Bosses Won’t Pay Me”. The headquarters were in Theobalds Road and I soon became the secretary-treasurer of the local which met on a Sunday in the unfurnished room there. We could not have had more than twenty members. Although there must have been other locals, I cannot remember any at all. The only political speech I have ever made was in the Communist Club on the I. W. W., advocating the formation of the “One Big Union”.
The I.W.W. had a platform in Finsbury Park and I particularly recall a meeting addressed by Fellow Worker Jack Smith,(2) who gave a most brilliant talk on “sausages”, saying that they were what the workers had to eat, in fact rather in praise of sausages as a working-class delicacy. He was highly amusing and could speak on anything. He was also a most competent lithographer and designed the red flag and black lettering for the notepaper of the Progressive Book Shop which Charlie Lahr ultimately brought from me. Poor Jack Smith died about 1920 at a very early age from tuberculosis. His inseparable companions were Albert Young,(3) proletarian poet, and Bonar Thompson, Hyde Park orator(4).
Thompson was a “character”, an interesting man who was a great devotee of Bernard Shaw, but a sponger who would live on anybody. He used to give dramatic recitals and so on. He and Jack Smith had an act which was very funny. They performed a duologue with action-I remember them doing it once in the Communist Club-starting off with “The capitalist class are a class without caps” and they would take their hats off, and this went on….
Bert Young, a glassblower by trade, lived with his wife in two rooms, full of books, in the Old Street area. He put me on to a lot of good writers, including Wilde, Whistler and James Huneker, the American critic. His poems were published as an 84-page book, The Red Dawn, in 1915 (and reprinted the following year) by the North London Herald League, of which I was also a member. He was a methylated-spirits drinker and used to get quite stupefied.
An unpleasant memory I have of the I.W.W. was the “trial” of a Fellow Worker, A.B. Elsbury,(5) Jewish and, I think, a tailor’s presser, accused of being a police spy. He was defended by his brother, an official of the Garment Workers Union, and acquitted after much commotion. He was a most unattractive individual and had, in addition, a dreadful stammer and very loose lips; but he was certainly innocent. He eventually became a bookseller in Hastings where he died.
Our local took to printing its own “money” in the most exotic, lurid colours, designed and printed by Jack Smith. It had no money and to raise funds members could buy notes, 2s.6d., 5s.,10s. and £1 denominations being produced. The principle was that, when those who had bought them with real money needed it back, the notes would be exchanged for cash by the treasurer on request. I am certain none were ever redeemed. I am also sure that this scheme was an offence against the law and if Scotland Yard had known it would have been down on us like a ton of bricks.
Two most unlikely visitors that I brought along at the end of 1918 were Mary Butts and John Rodker (6), introduced to me by an artist, Eddie Brown, who lived in Fitzroy Street and I had met in the No Conscription Fellowship. They were left-wing and wanted to go, but I think their reaction to the I.W.W. must have been one of amazement. Indeed the whole thing was comic, a charade.
Before Charlie was released from internment and rejoined the I.W.W., with his wife Esther, I had left, having become a member of the Boss Class by buying the shop at 68 Red Lion Street. The I.W.W. lingered on and finally merged with so many other small bodies when the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed. The only other political organization I ever joined (on leaving the I.W.W.) was the Holborn Conservative Association, believing I was throwing sand into the machinery of capitalism and as a Marxist that was the “class thing” to do. I did apply for membership of the Communist Party in 1924, but was excluded, one of the reasons given being my association with Charlie Lahr who had been branded as a police spy in the Workers’ Weekly. The letter of rejection was signed by Allen Hutt and my entrance fee of 5s. returned, dropped through my letter-box. That was rather nice since I could certainly do with the money at the time!
I had walked out of my job at the Army and Navy Club and bought the bookshop in November or December 1918 from its then owner Horace Young, whose parents were old socialists and Herald Leaguers (the Herald League people were all rather leftish, not respectable and more working-class than the I.L.Pers). He had not run it for more than a year- before that it had been an umbrella shop- and as a member of the British Socialist Party gave up the shop to go to Moscow as some kind of youth representative. He must have been one of the very earliest to get there. The first thing he did when he arrived was to register at the British Consulate. I thought that extremely odd at the time but, in retrospect, think he was most wise. After he came back he was a taxi-driver, then a school-teacher, and in the late Thirties the manager of Collet’s in Charing Cross Road.
I think I must have named it the Progressive Book Shop, although I sold any type of second-hand book. But outside I had a large rack, full of all the left-socialist papers and pamphlets.
The shop itself was little bigger than a sentry-box and with three people in it was quite full. Built in the late eighteenth century, its best feature was the shop window which could be seen and handled. The rent was 10s. a week, rates included. It was there that I first met Charlie sometime in 1919 after his release and we soon became very friendly. He brought in odds and ends of books for me to buy. He was then collecting razors to be sharpened and in due course returned, which involved cycling around the suburbs of London calling at barbers’ shops. It was naturally a marvellous opportunity to visit the many second-hand bookshops which were then scattered all over London. I often used to meet him at the Communist Workingman’s Club in Charlotte Street where we were both members and where I spent almost every evening as I then had a furnished room next door. There we often played chess, a passion with me at the time. Charlie once expounded to me a theory, that he adopted, which consisted in advancing all the pieces as fast as he could up the board, sweeping all before them. Some kind of Blitzkrieg I suppose that he had inherited from his German blood. It did not work in any case.
I liked this old German club, dating back to 1840 when the German Workers’ Educational Society had been founded. It was the only club I have ever belonged to and I had started going there at the end of 1917. I was actually its last secretary for about six months in 1920 before it was taken over by the C. P.G.B. and moved to New North Road, Hoxton, where it completely collapsed, being finally finished off about 1924. What became of its marvellous library of German books I do not know. It must have gone to Moscow in the end!
All kinds and sorts of people went to the Club, which was close to Howland Street on the west side of Charlotte Street. There was a dance-room and you could get very good and very cheap meals. A Czech would play the zither all the evening. It was run by a committee, who were almost all East European Jews, many of them tailors- I was one of the few with an English name. The members belonged to the British Socialist Party, Socialist Party of Great Britain (I cannot think how that was managed-they must have kept quiet about it!) Socialist Labour Party, Herald League, I.W.W.; and there were quite a number of anarchists, but it was not respectable enough for the I.L.P. It provided an international social place for revolutionaries. I was fourteen when the war broke out and had never known any foreigners, so it was a great thing for me to be able to meet people from all over Europe.
There were a lot of Russians. They weren’t actually members, but they met every Wednesday evening behind locked doors in the hall. They were all returning to Russia and many of them must have regretted it. Peters, one of the earliest members of the Cheka and supposed to be Peter the Painter, was among them and went back, to be followed by his extremely attractive wife May. He was shot, although May, who had been divorced by him, managed to live through it all. Their pretty little girl, Mary, became a telephonist at the Embassy, disappeared one day and got ten years for being a spy, but was rehabilitated after Stalin’s death. In 1921 I formed the idea that I too would like to travel round London picking up books and selling these to other booksellers through the advertisements in The Clique, the trade paper that still appears, and that I would do much better than sitting in the shop all day. I was quite wrong, and to begin with regretted greatly selling the “business” to Charlie and Esther for £25 paid in three instalments.
During the Twenties Charlie must have made a lot of money in that tiny shop, but I am sure it was largely lost in his publications. But as money was the last thing that had any interest for Charlie this did not matter to him in the least. What he enjoyed was the constant stream of writers and artists going in and out of the shop. Most of these became his firm friends, such as H. E. Bates, Rhys Davies, Olive Moore, James Hanley, John Brophy and many others. I shall always regret having missed T. E. Lawrence by about ten minutes one afternoon. I should think that practically every young writer of the period visited Red Lion Street and a good many must have been helped by Charlie, who had almost no wants of his own. He seemed to live entirely on ham rolls and a glass of beer at the Bedford arms opposite.
A stroke of luck he had at this time was when he sold at Hodgson’s Rooms for around £400 a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s very rare little book, Echoes. By Two Writers. He had picked it up before 1914 for threepence without realising what it was. This money enabled him to buy the in 1929 the house in Muswell hill, which he named “Echoes” and where he lived for the rest of his life.
I worked mainly from home between 1921 and 1932 and would see Charlie almost daily at Red Lion Street. After 1932, when I took premises at 4 Cecil Court, Charing Cross Road, I met him at least once a week, for from then until the late Sixties he exchanged with me weekly copies of the New Statesman and Spectator in return for the trade papers, The Bookseller and The Clique, along with The Times Literary Supplement. Bibliographically, though, we had parted ways as I had gone in for the antiquarian side of the business, specialising in seventeenth century books, while the kind of book which interested Charlie was always that of some obscure modern writer whom he thought to be good.
With the advent of war in 1939 I left London and went to live in the country. The papers then were sent by post faithfully each week until after the War I took a flat in Gray’s Inn Road. Whenever I was in London, which was virtually every week, Charlie would unfailingly come along about 9.30. We would be having breakfast but could never persuade him to sit down or to have a cup of tea, however ghastly the weather. He was always in a blinding hurry.
The last time I saw him was Christmas 1968 when I had tea with him and Esther and talked over old times. Two or three weeks after, Esther was dead, dying from a virulent attack of flu. When I left them Charlie insisted on going with me to the bus stop, although he was well over eighty and it was very dark and wet. So after fifty years of friendship we parted.
The above text was intended as a chapter for a volume in memory of Charlie Lahr (1885-1971), of which only an expanded version of the introduction has ever been published (as David Goodway, ‘Charles Lahr: Anarchist, Bookseller, Publisher’, London Magazine, New Series, vol, 17, no. 2 (June/July 1977), reprinted (without the illustrations) in Alan Ross (ed.), London Magazine 1961-85 (Chatto & Windus, 1986). David Goodway transcribed a recorded conversation with Harold Edwards, added some passages from their correspondence and Harold was very happy to put his name to the result.
I have written additional biographical notes.
Harold was a key mover in the setting up of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers whose aim was to counter suspicion and animosity engendered by the Second World War, attending its founding conference in Amsterdam in 1947, as well as editing the newletter of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association and then becoming its president in 1964. He appears to have become a Buddhist. In 1971 Harold and his wife Olive began corresponding with the family of a Soviet prisoner of conscience, the Aidovs, as part of an Amnesty International letter-writing campaign. The book From Newbury in Love collects that correspondence
Harold died in 1986.
1. Dicky Fox is Richard Michael Fox, usually known as R. M. Fox. Born in Leeds in 1891, the son of an engineer and a teacher, he became an engineer himself. He took an internationalist position with the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. He refused to be conscripted and was imprisoned several times, on one occasion Guy Aldred being a fellow inmate. He was released in 1919 and began a career as a writer and journalist. His first book Factory Echoes appeared in 1919 and his autobiography Smokey Crusade (which contains much important information about the revolutionary movement) in 1937. He eventually moved to Dublin where he died in 1969. He was a friend of Patrick Henry Lynch, also active in the London IWW, who died young in 1916. Lynch’s sister, Patricia, supported the suffrage movement and later wrote for Sylvia Pankhust’s Worker’s Dreadnought. She married Fox in 1922 and became a famous children’s writer.
2. This is almost certainly not the Jack Smith who was active in Glasgow during the First World War. An Englishman, he was a convenor at Weir’s munitions factory. He was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment in 1916, alongside James Maxton and James McDougall, who received 12 months imprisonment, for his role in calling for strike action against the Munitions Act. An anarchist, he was associated with the Glasgow group around Aldred. The fact that Smith was a close friend of Young, who definitely did have connections with Glasgow, might indicate that the two Smiths are one and the same. However, Edwards would have surely mentioned the fact, and the London Jack Smith was a printer not a factory worker. The Jack Smith of Edwards’ account died in 1942, according to Ken Weller, contradicting the date given by Edwards.However, this appears to be a misprint as Bonar Thompson in his Hyde Park orator says that he died of consumption in 1924. He is described by Fox in Smokey Crusade as a “hoarse-voiced little Cockney” whom Bonar Thompson had nicknamed “the Westminster Demosthenes” (Greek statesman famed for his oratory) and he is the subject of a sketch, Casuals of the City, in his book Drifting Men(1930). Here Fox describes Smith as having a “toothbrush moustache and a stubbly chin, an untidy, likeable little man” with a “talent for public exhortation”, prone to throwing up a job and going on the tramp around the country. He appears to be the Jack Smith, printer, arrested during the demonstration at Islington Town Hall in 1921, and charged with being in possession of a razor. Bonar Thompson in Hyde Park Orator describes Jack Smith as a "wisp of a man, conspicuously insignificant, with a light squeaky voice. He was bad on his feet, bad in his teeth, wore a muffler, and a quiff which curled up from beneath a cloth cap, rolled his own cigarettes, and looked what he was not, a "yob"." Thompson regarded Smith with great affection, calling him a genius, and that he missed him badly, opining that :"such unique spirits are not often encountered in the dreary world of economic and political mugwumpery and gasbaggery".
3. Albert Young (1884-1946) produced the collection of poems Red Dawn subtitled A Book of Verse for Revolutionaries and Others published by the North London Herald League in September 1915. It was very popular, particularly in South Wales and Glasgow, and had to be reprinted early 1916. He also contributed along with John Smith Clark (Socialist Labour Party member) and Tom Anderson (founder of the Proletarian Schools movement) to a collection of poems The Red Army: Revolutionary Poems produced by the Proletarian School in Glasgow in 1919. Interestingly Anderson began producing the newsletter of the Proletarian Schools in the same year, named..The Red Dawn. Fox in his Smokey Crusade refers to Young as “a pale-faced little revolutionary poet with a gleaming red tie, who talked with equal fervour about Karl Marx, Jack London, Swinburne, Shelley and Herbert Spencer”. Young died in “abject poverty” (p. 48 Weller, Don’t Be a Soldier!)
4. Bonar Thompson (1888-1963). Born in Carnearney, near Antrim. Went to England at fourteen and worked in various jobs. Made his first political speech in Salford at the age of seventeen. Associated with the unemployed movement, he was sentenced to a year in Rochester Borstal for smashing windows during a demonstration. Became an anarchist and spoke at meetings of the movement. Took an internationalist position over World War One. Sent to Dyce Camp for Conscientious Objectors from where thanks to reasonably relaxed conditions organised speaking tours of Scotland with Aldred. Dropped out of the anarchist movement and became a professional orator at Speaker’s Corner. Wrote poetry and three autobiographies, and acted in satirical one man-shows and a travelling theatre.
5. A.B -Albert or Ben -Elsbury. He and his brother Sam (real name Solomon) had emigrated to Britain from Russia. Their family name before Anglicisation was Elfski. Ben brought out the 15 page pamphlet Industrial Unionism: its principles and meaning in 1909. Tom Mann remarked on him as being one of the first heralds of industrial unionism. Member of North London Herald League. Edited the British IWW paper The Industrial Worker. Associated with the International Socialist Club in Shoreditch. Chief strike organiser of the Shoreditch Unemployed Committee in 1921, which organised a ‘no rent’ strike in the area in the autumn of that year. Wrote a memoir, Shoreditch Experiences. In the 20s produced a collection of songs Proletarian parodies: songs of rebellion to every-day tunes for the works, street, and home. A founder member of the Communist Party. Joined the Independent Labour Party, and whilst in it supported the Marxist Group of CLR James (The Johnston-Forest Tendency). Later joined the Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialist League, later the Revolutionary Workers League, and then the Workers International League. Edwards appears to be mistaken when he says that Elsbury became a bookseller only when he moved to Hastings, as he seems to have formed a husband and wife team, the Elsbury-Brenners, running a bookshop in Charlotte Place, W1 in 1943 and then another bookshop in Lisle Street in 1944. He is later noted as running the Ace Bookshop at 23 Marchmont Street “specialising in Marxism, socialism and first editions” in 1957.
6. Rodker (1884-1955) writer and modernist poet from Jewish background, was a conscientious objector during WW1. The writer Mary Butts (1890-1937) was his first wife.